A mere twenty years ago, had I been the age I am now (23), I don’t know that I would have been able to attend college and succeed. I don’t know that I would be considered for a job. I don’t know that I would be able to go out in public and expect to get around in my wheelchair with relative ease.
Today, because people like President George H.W. Bush and the late Senator Ted Kennedy cared enough about equality for everyone, I’m able to do these things without giving it that much thought. I still encounter many obstacles, and I’ve found many of them to be due to common ignorance. It still amazes (and appalls) me just how little people understand about people like me.
First off, I do not consider myself, nor do I call myself, “disabled.” Many people are offended by the word “handicapped,” and yet I’ve also encountered quite a few who feel insulted by the adjective “disabled.” I think the noun is even much worse; you know, referring to us collectively as “the disabled,” as if we were still in the 1960s, when people still used offensive terms as “the colored.”
Well, guess what? It didn’t make sense back then, and it certainly doesn’t make sense now. I am not “disabled” or “defective” or “invalid.” I am a person with the right to tell you notto call me that. I encourage all of you who are reading this to reflect upon your own casual usage of such words. Yes, there was a time when I used the word “retarded,” I’ll admit. I’m not proud of this, but I wasn’t very educated, was still very young and in middle school probably, and there wasn’t yet a widespread campaign telling people like me to stop using that word.
The big difference is that I listened, I learned, and I stopped.
But, here’s the real problem. When referring to the casual use of the word “disabled,” I’m not referring to street-talk or bleeped-out slurs on “The Jerry Springer Show.” I’m talking about respected journalists, lawmakers, national leaders– and those who have physical/developmental/emotional challenges themselves. “Et tu, bruté?” Nothing frustrates me more, or hurts me more, than to hear one of my own referring to me or to themselves as “disabled.” But, you can’t really stop people from calling themselves whatever they want.
Just don’t ever let me catch you calling me “disabled.”
On that cheerful note, in commemorating the 20th anniversary of when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, I’d like to honor a true hero, Andrew “Andy” Imparato. Mr. Imparato, a disability rights lawyer from Baltimore, is currently the president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).
Andy, who has bipolar disorder, previously served on the National Council on Disability (NCD) and during the mid-1990s worked for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy.
According to the AAPD Web site, Andy has “testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging; U.S. Senate Committee on Health; Education, Labor and Pensions; U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Housing and Transportation; U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space; U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee on Health; U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor; U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and the Institute of Medicine.”
Imparato’s exhaustive track record on the floors of Congress convey only a small fraction of the tireless work he has done on behalf of people with different challenges. In October 2003, he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and he serves on the Persons with Disabilities Fund Board of Advisors for the Chicago Community Trust.
In addition, Imparato advises reputable companies on “corporate social responsibility, diversity, accessibility, and disability marketing issues.” Among his clients are Time Warner, AT&T, Microsoft, and IBM.
Tonight, Andy was interviewed on “PBS NewsHour” by “Day 1″ hero Judy Woodruff, whose son has spina bifida. It is very exciting and encouraging for me to see fellow heroes and acquaintances of mine working together to push such important issues to the forefront of society’s collective mind.
Still, there is much work to be done if we are to eradicate the use of such terms as “disabled” from, yes, even that well-executed news report on PBS. I know that no one in the mass media uses this term to offend, but I believe that replacing the term with a word that will place the emphasis on our abilities rather than our setbacks will put society in a more open state of mind, and will allow us to move forward.
Although I could not yet find the video online for you, I am sharing this article by Judy Woodruff, published today, which gives a thoughtful, introspective look at the challenges facing many Americans with “disabilities,” including her 28-year-old son, Jeffrey, who has spina bifida. I humbly and wholeheartedly congratulate our friend, Ms. Woodruff, for a piece that is at first informative and objective, and which, toward the very end, puts the issue of the ADA’s 20th anniversary into the context of her own personal life. We definitely need more journalists like you!
This afternoon, about two hours before the live interview, I called Andy at work, since he had agreed to provide some insight for my final project in my Disabilities in AmericanSociety class. I didn’t get a hold of him on my first try, so I left a voicemail, and within minutes, he called me back. We talked for a bit, and he encouraged me to peruse the AAPD Web site, which is full of great resources.
It’s incredible to me that, a few short hours later, I was watching him give a live interview on national television in Washington, D.C. He gives the word “accessible” a whole new meaning! It was a very interesting conversation, and I look forward to having more contact with him in the near future.
I’ll contact both of them and ask them if they can send me a link to the video of tonight’s broadcast.
Until then, my friends, thanks for reading, and happy anniversary to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990!